Do you have a history of making friendships or having romantic relationships where, when you get close to the other person (or they get close to you), you push them away? Maybe you get scared when you get close or you start having the thought that they’re going to dump you so you want to do it first. I’ve had several clients lately who tend to have relationships that work like this and have been frustrated by this. They don’t understand why it happens. Sometimes they hardly even recognize themselves. And then I describe something that is called an attachment style. And when I have, I can see that suddenly, my clients are understanding behaviors and thoughts that didn’t make sense before. I also see a lot of relief that now they have some understanding. And I see hope, because now that they know what’s going on, they can start working on the issue and at least they know they aren’t crazy they way they felt they were.
Your first question might be: what’s an attachment style? That sounds odd, doesn’t it. Attachment styles are several different types of relationships we establish with our primary caregiver as an infant. Often, of course, this is the mother. But it could be a grandparent or someone else who is the main caretaker of the baby. Most people (about 80%) have what is called a “secure” attachment. This is what we all want for our kids. Kids with a secure attachment know they are safe with their primary caretaker. The world overall feels safe because that caretaker makes sure to keep them safe. They are fed when hungry, changed when a diaper is dirty, soothed when upset, etc. In other words, their needs are met.
Unfortunately, there are several other attachment styles that are not as healthy. The one that is relevant here is called disorganized attachment. For babies who have a disorganized attachment, their relationship with their primary caregiver is sometimes safe and comforting, where needs are met, and sometimes scary and unsafe. Babies are wired to connect to and depend upon their caregivers. For babies, this is safety. So what is a baby to do when they can never predict if they will be cared for or scared or hurt? They are wired for connection and love, but they have learned that this person sometimes scares or hurts them instead of caring for or comforting them. The baby’s brain is learning that this is what close relationships are like: unpredictable and sometimes scary/painful or sometimes comforting.
As the baby grows up, this expectation of how relationships are remains deep inside, outside of conscious awareness. Although a person isn’t aware of this expectation, the emotional brain which carries the memories of these experiences and which learned this “rule” for relationships is still applying the rule to his or her adult relationships. It’s not necessarily a conscious thought such as “this person is going to hurt me.” Often, it’s just a feeling of fear and impending hurt or a feeling that the friend or partner can’t be trusted or is going to let you down. That person probably couldn’t point to any hard reasons for the feeling. But that feeling is SO strong. It can feel like a matter of life and death. And other times, that person is overwhelmed with feelings of longing for love and connection with that friend or partner and hates any feelings of distance. Often times, however, the friend or partner is very confused about why sometimes they are valued and wanted and other times they are pushed away. It can feel to them like the other person is being arbitrary and capricious.
The good news is that it is possible to change the brain’s belief or expectation about how relationships are unpredictable. It’s not easy and it’s not quick, but it is possible. If you feel like this explains your own experiences with friendships and other important relationships, you might benefit from talking with a therapist about this and seeing what your treatment options might be.
Just a reminder that I offer a free 30-minute consultation at my Belton office. I won’t do any therapy, but this is a chance for you to ask questions and get a feel for how comfortable you are with me. You can call/text (816) 226-4678 for an appointment